In this match of two halves, the view as to whether we got away with one or got our just desserts, will depend upon the status of your glass, and whether its color is Blaugrana.
No doubt, the Parakeets are still chirping about the penalty that counted for the only goal of the match, and maybe they should be. But more about that later, because I want to take these first few paragraphs to celebrate my Man of the Match, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. My view, by the by, on what I could give whether anyone agrees with me, falls into the rat’s ass category.
When the deal was made that brought him to Barcelona, there was some pretty widespread howling. And yes, he still has a ways to go to duplicate the achievements and status of the man that he replaced. But for me, one staggering first half play shows why he’s worth every penny of what we paid. A long, slightly off pass from Pique (kinda the story of his day) was spanked to him, one that by all rights should have rolled harmlessly to the Espanyol defense. But he somehow sticks a leg out to control it, then tap a perfectly weighted back heel to Pedro!, who sends a slightly off (again) return ball to Ibrahimovic who, with a defender in his back pocket, plays keepe-uppe until he can round to face the bewildered defender, before making a neat pass to continue the attack.
It showed off every facet of this dude’s skill set: strength, flexibility, creativity, talent. The GolTV broadcast kept showing the replay, as if they, too, were trying to get their minds around what just happened, because it almost looked normal in real time. When you tack that atop his playmaking, inch-perfect passes and constant threat when he was on the pitch, even though he only scored a penalty that wasn’t, this was one of his best matches in the colors.
And boy, did we need it. Things got off to a weird start as almost right off the start. Espanyol showed what they were going to be about today as a long ball found Pique’s man on his inside, leading to a scramble that was snuffed out by the defense. But the gauntlet was down, as another team rolled into our home to play the match of their lives. We were ready for it in the first half, with absurd possession stats. We weren’t in the second, a half defined by stupid play, horrid passes and near misses for them, either from offside flags or Puyol interventions.
Guardiola rolled out with a lineup that should have been enough to put the stonk in, had we and Espanyol been playing to form: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Maxwell, The Yaya, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro!, Henry and Ibrahimovic. And it bounced back from that initial scare beautifully, proceeding to put a yellow boot down on the match, with all the traffic being one way, toward Kameni, a man who is really starting to piss me off. Every keeper has strengths and weaknesses, and his strengths are precisely what we don’t need: immense quickness and great hands. So all those balls that slide through the box with lesser keepers, that Cameroonian bugger just grabs hold of, calmly, as another scoring chance goes away.
But then, Pedro! did pretty much the one good thing that he did all match, pouncing on a poor clearance to intercept a pass and roll in on Kameni, who was probably thinking, “I’m screwed.” Then P! got the yips, and wasn’t even close with the shot, on a play that really should have sent us off to the races. An early goal would have crushed their confidence, and got us moving in the right direction. But it wasn’t to be, and they hunkered down, playing defense and waiting for an error, allowing our offense its full flower.
Henry was showing why he belongs on that left wing, winning corner after corner with pace and control, and Iniesta was a little demon in the center, the other player (besides The Yaya) that didn’t make you wonder who just did that bit of brilliance, as those pale legs intercepted passes, made stops and went dervishing about the pitch.
But the ridiculous clearance by Captain Caveman that led to an excellent long-range blast from Espanyol, pretty much defined the day. Yes, Valdes made an excellent save, but they were clearly a side waiting to pounce on any error that we made. And boy, did we make a pig pile of ’em, any one of which would have been a goal against a better side. Puyol made his, Pique made his, Alves kept on making them and Maxwell made the king of them all. Now, I imagine that there won’t be debates about any of these, but every last one of them was an appalling error that a championship defender isn’t supposed to make in a 1-0 match.
Ibrahimovic and Henry were at the center of almost everything good in the first half, as they began to develop a working rapport with each other in a match that looked like it was going to get more goals than it in fact did. Pedro! made an excellent run and a cut-back pass that was the first (and really, only) instance that you could say “Boy, we needed Messi.” His pass plopped into the exact spot that our Argentine maestro would have filled, then spanked past the keeper. As it was, it fell to nobody, and that was that.
The play was chippy, as Espanyol’s defensive theory was “when in doubt, foul ’em.” A long-overdue first yellow card at about the 18-minute mark didn’t even stop this tactic, and then came The Play.
It started out beautifully, as Ibrahimovic’s hard pass found Henry in his element, controlling a ball and going off to the races to create an opportunity for a teammate. The ensuing chaos found Ibrahimovic again as the playmaker, as he sent in a beautiful lob to Xavi, who, it appeared from the initial angle, got a little shove from the Espanyol defender. Down he went, and the penalty was called.
As it turns out, the call was rather beneficial, and certainly generous. I don’t think that Xavi took a dive, as gimlet-headed Phil Schoen accused him of, but the little touch coincided with Xavi losing his footing while trying to get under Ibra’s pass, making it look worse than it was. Ibrahimovic or Henry probably don’t get that call, but Xavi did. Beauty of it is that it allowed Ibrahimovic to (rightfully so) take his first penalty shot for us, a blast into the corner that was past Kameni before he had a chance to react. Good thing, too, since Kameni guessed right, as he’d been doing for the entire match to that point.
We rolled into the second half and everything was different. An awful play by Pique had the danger snuffed out by a colossal The Yaya, but Espanyol were getting braver as they chased the match, looking for the opportunity to smear egg on their no longer crosstown rivals. Valdes made yet another excellent play, then a loose touch from Pedro! killed another attack, before one of my favorite moments of the match arrived.
Iniesta got fouled yet again by a pair of Espanyol players, and the one that was trying to continue play, got a most excellent forearm shiver from The Yaya, and a look which very eloquently said, “Dude, that’s enough of that shit.” I loved it. The ref wasn’t going to call anything on The Yaya, because that was how the match was rolling, and The Yaya knew it. And the time was right, as things were in the balance.
Keita subbed in for Pedro!, at a perfect time, since P! perfectly demonstrated why he isn’t quite ready for full-on prime time yet. He took a pass from Alves, who kept moving, expecting a give-and-go. P! accepted the pass and played with the ball a bit before returning it to Alves. By that time the Espanyol defense had re-set, and the moment was lost.
And maybe that moment upset Alves to a degree that made him stupid. Because first he threw up a bad pass, then a throw-in that sent Espanyol off to the races, as we started playing as though we had a 5-goal lead, instead of a 1-goal difference. The midfield was invisible and we were on the back foot, but Puyol was resolute. Even Iniesta laid off a shit-tastic pass that sent Espanyol off on the break, but the defense dealt with it beautifully.
One of the highlights of the half was the shambling, rumbling run from The Yaya that was just stopped by a last-ditch tackle in the box as a charging Ibrahimovic sends not one, but two Espanyol players to the pitch. No, we didn’t score, but I can’t help loving when we give back some of the physical crap that we take. Hit ’em harder, I say.
Then came the implementation of a little-known rule in La Liga, in which a team must, whenever possible, substitute a player that is exactly half the size of the player that he is replacing. This explains the Krkic for Ibrahimovic substitution. It has to, right?
Valdes kicked out the jams in the 80th minute with a play that shows exactly why he is the perfect keeper for us. A long pass found Pique smoked by his attacker, but there was Valdes, way out of the box, to easily deal with the ball in his sweeper keeper role. And Guardiola was off the bench looking worried, because he could see what we all could: 1-goal lead, lackadaisical play and a team ready to pounce on every error.
But it just kept going. Busquets came in for The Yaya, a like-for-like (sort of) swap. And Krkic kept losing balls that life-sized strikers would have claimed. Valdes puts the smack down on an Espanyol free kick. Alves knocks off another crappy pass that Busquets calmly dealt with, then Maxwell tried to kill me via heart attack, as he slid a ball toward Puyol that looked as if he should have been wearing Espanyol colors. The defense dealt with it, converging on the Espanyol attacker who (thankfully) stumbled a bit as he realized the magnitude of what was resting on his shoulders. And that was that.
So we escape, because that’s what it was, really, as a match that should have been easily controlled turned worrisome as normally reliable players lost their collective minds. A number of those uncertain moments were caused by an annoying tendency on the part of our defense, to head balls that they could easily play with their feet, a more secure and reliable option. Pique does it, Busquets does it, as does Maxwell. Puyol hardly ever does, because he understands that headed balls are pretty much never as accurate as a pass with the foot.
Team: 5. This began life as a 10, then the second half pulled things down. Brutal, but that’s life. You take your foot off the gas when you have a 5-goal lead, not a miniscule 1-goal sliver.
Guardiola: 7. He vexes me sometimes. Why Krkic for Ibrahimovic? Are 10 minutes going to kill him? I called the Keita for Pedro! swap, and Busquets for The Yaya was obvious. His starting XI should have been enough, but he needs to work on his halftime speeches, apparently.
Valdes: 9. Brilliant, despite the shit-talking Schoen. Killer save on the long shot, and fulfilling the sweeper keeper role to perfection.
Alves: 6. Man, he was brilliant in that first half, with strong defense and incisive, ambitious passing. Then it all went pear-shaped in the second. You know, he was better with his other ears.
Pique: 5. His passing was off all night, and he kept getting outrun. No, he can’t be blamed for genetics, but he can be blamed for the positioning that makes those genetic deficiencies apparent. He made a number of very good plays, then would do something to cancel out his goodness.
Puyol: 7. Very good match from Captain Caveman, particularly at crucial moments of the second half, when everything around him was falling apart.
Maxwell: 6. See Alves. Holy shit, dude! Way to take a very good match and blow it all to hell in the last 10 minutes. Concentration. Concentration. Being a great player is mental and physical. Shame, because he was tearing up the terra in the first half.
The Yaya: 7. Very good match, with some fine defensive play. You can see why Guardiola would prefer Busquets in some matches. We almost need a post on the The Yaya vs Busquets differences, but defensive mid vs deep-lying playmaker gets at the heart of the matter.
Xavi: 6. Again, strong first half, then donned the cloak of invisibility in the second, a time when we needed his stability and control.
Iniesta: 6. Started out great, then seemed to run out of steam. This is probably expected, since he’s still playing his way back from injury and illness, but that first half of his was absolutely magical.
Pedro! 5. Pretty much ineffective, aside from a couple of good moments that he didn’t do anything with. His deficiencies for me are still decision making and speed of play.
Henry: 7. He isn’t back, but he’s getting there. This was his best match in a while. His ability to create space, control the ball in traffic and make good passes while on the move were all on display today.
Ibrahimovic: 8. Tailed off just a bit from his magical first half, but played an exceptional match. He seems to be getting better, which is a good sign for us, and a bad sign for our opponents.
Keita (for Pedro!): 7. I really liked what he brought to the side. His pace and physical presence were vital in the midfield at a time when things were getting really messy.
Krkic (for Ibrahimovic): 3. Ran around, looked cute, didn’t do a damned thing. He was playing in the center? With grownups? No way.
Busquets (for The Yaya): 6. He was legginess and energy in just the right part of the pitch, at the right time. Made a couple of key interventions. With more time, would almost certainly have played to a higher rating.
So, now we are on the verge of what is going to be an extremely difficult part of the season for us, with no Keita or The Yaya, and no viable answer for that DM role. Some were hoping, I’m sure, that Marquez might be capable of being pressed into duty there, but no freakin’ way. My heart can’t take such things. Is there an option in the January transfer window? Good question. Lots of rumors, nothing credible. And Txiki B is being inscrutable, so we’re in wait and see mode on that one.
Is there a DM option on the bench? I wouldn’t mind trying Txigrinski there. He has the size and skills, but not the pace. But given that a DM’s job is to keep things in front of them and make the right pass, he might be worth a look in the absence of signings. Particularly now that we have a healthy Milito back in the fold.
And the season continues. EE won today, and we will probably return from the World Club Championships with a 2-point lead, as that match in hand that we have goes away while we’re frolicking in the warmth and sun of Abu Dhabi. January will be crucial to our championship hopes on every level.
I know …. Duh!
As usual, a little bit of joy.